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Congressional Testimony Ties Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery to its Status as a U.S. Territory

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on June 25, 2019, titled, “Recovery, Resiliency and Readiness—Contending with Natural Disasters in the Wake of Climate Change.” This was the third in a series of hearings on climate change.

Natural disasters have been greatly affected by climate change. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are twice as common now as they were in the 1970s, and resources for coping with them have not kept pace with the increase. However, FEMA’s strategic plans stopped discussing climate change in 2018, when all references to the phenomenon were removed from the documents.

Written testimony from Omar Marrero, Executive Director, Central Office of Recovery and Reconstruction of Puerto Rico, spoke of the $100 billion in damages to the Island, as well as the fact that the descruction “la[id] bare the vulnerability caused by decades of underinvestment and deficient maintenance of critical infrastructure.” The report acknowledges that Puerto Rico must be better prepared in future to be able to benefit from federal assistance.

At the same time, wrote Marrero, “We see that the lack of equality for Puerto Rico threatens our capacity to ensure that a comprehensive process of recovery and reconstruction takes place so that no future disaster will ever bring the same level of devastation to our people and our environment as Hurricane Maria did. Governor Rosselló has long articulated his belief that climate change is not only making disasters more frequent and more damaging, but that owing to Puerto Rico’s unique geographical position –Puerto Rico remains uniquely vulnerable.”

Puerto Rico is well placed to rely on renewable energy, and Marrero emphasized the territory’s government’s efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels. “As we consider our ever-changing global environment and how we can work together to protect our planet,” he wrote, “I am proud to report that Puerto Rico is emerging as a leader in sustainability and renewable energy in the United States.”

However, the statement also points out that Puerto Rico’s vulnerability is not entirely under the territory’s control.

“The question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status and relationship with the Federal Government is intimately linked to the island’s prospects for economic growth, fiscal stability, and successful disaster recovery. By allowing Congress and the Federal Executive Branch to treat Puerto Rico differently and in ways that discriminate against the island and the nearly 3.2 million U.S. citizens who live there, the current territorial status inherently limits our chances of success,” Marrero wrote. “It does this by allowing the propagation of Federal laws and policies toward the territory that lack the coherence and consistency required to provide for the island’s sustained socioeconomic development and growth. The unfortunate reality is that Federal policy towards Puerto Rico is oftentimes executed as an afterthought and without a proper understanding of the circumstances of the island and its residents.”

The statement refers not only to the repair of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure following Hurricane Maria, but also to economic development.

“There are countless examples of Federal policies and practices that harm or limit Puerto Rico’s economic development potential,” Marrero continued. “Among these are the disparate treatment and sometimes outright exclusion of Puerto Rico from a variety of Federal programs, the island’s exclusion from a multitude of Federal studies and statistics, the disproportionately low level of Federal procurement from businesses in Puerto Rico, and unnecessary regulations that limit interstate commerce such as the Electronic Export Information requirement.

The EEI requirement refers to additional paperwork required for exports from the mainland to Puerto Rico or to foreign countries. This is not required for most shipments to Canada, or to Guam, American Samoa, and several other U.S. possessions.

“The current reform process happening in Puerto Rico under PROMESA, and the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, present an ideal opportunityto finally define the ultimate political future of Puerto Rico, and to begin a transition toward that end,” the statement continues. “Congress must act definitively to resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status, because maintaining the status quo will only further delay the island’s recovery and reconstruction. Congress should implement the democratically expressed will of voters who have expressed twice in the last six years a clear desire to end the current territory status and to achieve statehood for Puerto Rico. Indeed, for America and Puerto Rico both, statehood is the best possible answer and the best path forward out of this century old issue and into a new century of economic growth and prosperity.”

Marrero’s testimony ends on an upbeat note. “Our goal is to re-imagine, revitalize, and rebuild Puerto Rico so that it can develop to its full capacity for the benefit of not only island residents, but for America as a whole,” he writes. “This recovery will remain challenging and ourpath will still yet have moments of trial, but we can do this together. We owe the American Citizens who make Puerto Rico their home nothing less.”

Read the full statement.

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